In this week’s parasha, Pinchas, we read about the righteous daughters of Tzelofchad. Recall that the five daughters (Machlah, Noa, Haglah, Milkah, and Tirzah) had no male siblings, and their father had passed away, so they inquired about their inheritance. Are daughters allowed to inherit? It might sound like a straight-forward “yes”, but it was much more complicated in ancient Israel. Continue reading
The festival of Shavuot commemorates the Divine Revelation at Sinai and the giving of the Torah. There is a well-known custom to eat dairy foods on the holiday. Although it isn’t clear exactly where this custom came from, there are many beautiful explanations for it. Below are some of them.
Cheese & Coffee
The classic and most oft-cited answer for eating dairy on Shavuot is as follows: Since the Jewish people received the Torah on Shavuot, they were now bound by the laws of kashrut. This meant that whatever meat they had available was not kosher. Therefore, they had to consume dairy products. The consensus among the Talmudic sages is that the Torah was given on Shabbat, which means the people would not have been able to shecht fresh meat (Shabbat 88a). So, they ate dairy.
This standard explanation is actually problematic, for it is also forbidden to milk a cow on Shabbat or to make cheese (Shabbat 95a). Although the Israelites could have had cheese from before, making cheese requires rennet which, to be kosher, must be extracted from a kosherly-slaughtered cow. Whatever cheese they had would not have been kosher either! Perhaps they ruled that since only very little rennet is required—certainly less than 1/60th of the cheese’s total mass, although it is a davar hamaamid, a vital ingredient—and that they had produced that cheese inadvertently—not being bound by kosher law at the time—it would be okay.
Or, perhaps they reasoned like Rabbeinu Tam (Rabbi Yakov ben Meir, 1100-1171) who held that rennet was not the issue with non-kosher cheese. He argued that in our day and age all cheese is pretty much kosher, even that made by gentiles, though it is certainly better to be stringent and avoid those made with non-kosher rennet (see Tosfot on Avodah Zarah 35a). It should be noted that the halacha today is not in accordance with Rabbeinu Tam’s lenient position. Although over 90% of the cheese on the market is made from artificial rennet anyway, Jewish communities long ago accepted the prohibition of gevinat akum, not to consume any cheese not made or supervised by Jews.
Of course, it is possible that the Israelites at Sinai didn’t eat cheese at all, but had other dairy products such as butter, which would have been made before Shabbat, and would have been fine to consume. Today, on our fixed Jewish calendar, Shavuot can never coincide with Shabbat (at least not the first day of Shavuot). Because of this, as with other yom tovs, it is common to have a barbeque since cooking on a holiday, unlike on Shabbat, is permitted. Now, most people who had stayed up all night studying (as is customary on Shavuot) are unlikely to start grilling in the wee hours of the morning, nor could they stomach a heavy meat meal. In many synagogues, after staying up in study all night, the community then prays at the earliest possible hour, has a quick breakfast Kiddush—breakfast generally being a dairy meal—and then everyone is off to get some sleep. This is the simplest and most practical reason for the custom of a dairy meal on Shavuot.
Alternatively, others have the custom to have a dairy meal in the evening, before the all-night study session. This is because eating a heavy meat meal will make it hard to stay awake all night. It is better to have a light dairy meal, probably with a strong coffee. Jewish historian and scholar Elliot Horowitz presented a fascinating theory that the practice of staying up all night on Shavuot (as well as Hoshanah Rabbah) only became popular starting in the 16th century because it was in this century that coffee was introduced to the Ottoman Empire! Similarly, among Ashkenazis the practice didn’t take hold until decades later, when coffee was first brought to Europe. (See Horowitz’s 1989 paper, “Coffee, Coffee Houses, and the Nocturnal Rituals of Early Modern Jewry.”)
Mountain of Cheese
In Psalm 68, which is recited on Shavuot, we read:
When God scattered kings therein, it snowed in Tzalmon. A mountain of God is the mountain of Bashan; a mountain of peaks [har gavnunim] is the mountain of Bashan. Why do you look askance, you mountains of peaks? The mountain which God has desired for His abode? God will dwell therein forever. The chariots of God are myriads, even thousands upon thousands; God is among them, as in Sinai, in holiness.
In this passage, we see how God’s chosen mountain, Sinai, is called by other names. The Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 2:4) elaborates:
[Mt. Sinai] has five names: Har HaElohim, Har Bashan, Har Gavnunim, Har Horev, Har Sinai. “Har HaElohim” because there Israel accepted Hashem as their God. “Har Bashan”, since everything a person eats with their teeth [b’shinav] comes from the merit of the Torah, which was given on this mountain… “Har Gavnunim” because it is pure like cheese [gevinah], free of all blemishes. “Har Horev” since here the Sanhedrin was given the authority to pronounce the death penalty [harev]… “Har Sinai” since henceforth there was hatred [sinah] for idol worshippers [who did not accept the Torah].
We see that one of the names for Sinai is “mountain of cheese”, which is another reason to consume dairy products on Shavuot. Better yet, the gematria of cheese (גבינה) is 70, alluding to the “seventy faces” of Torah, as well as the seventy names for God, and the seventy names for Israel—all revealed at Sinai.
Interestingly, in the Talmud, Rav Kahana adds that Sinai comes from the word nes, “miracle”, since the Jewish people witnessed the greatest miracle there (Shabbat 89a). The Sages countered his point by saying: Then it should’ve been called Har Nisai! Another Midrash adds that Sinai comes from the word sneh, the burning bush through which Moses first encountered God on that mountain (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 41).
We read in the Torah that when Moses was born, his mother hid him from the Egyptians for three months (Exodus 2:2). Since we know that Moses’ birthday was the 7th of Adar, three months later would be the 7th of Sivan. According to one opinion in the Talmud, the Torah was actually given on the 7th of Sivan, even though today we celebrate Shavuot on the 6th of Sivan (Shabbat 88a). Whatever the case, Shavuot is the day when Moses was placed into the River and discovered by Pharaoh’s daughter.
We then read in the Torah that Moses’ sister, Miriam, who was a servant of Pharaoh’s daughter, told her: “Shall I go and call you a nurse of the Hebrew women, that she may nurse the child for you?” (Exodus 2:7) Miriam brought Yocheved, and Moses was nursed by his own mother despite being raised in the Egyptian palace (Sotah 12b). So, another reason to eat dairy on Shavuot is in commemoration of baby Moses being reunited with his mother and continuing to nurse from her. In fact, the entire nation standing on Mt. Sinai on Shavuot is likened to a newborn baby, for this is the officially birthday of the Jewish people. At that moment, the Jewish people “nursed” directly from God. And there is an allusion to this in Psalm 68, cited above.
There, the first verse refers to God coming upon Mt. Sinai using the Name Shaddai. The first time this Name appears in the Torah is when God reveals Himself to Abraham: “…I am El Shaddai, walk before me, and be pure, and I will make My covenant between Me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly.” (Genesis 17:1-2) Later we read how Isaac blesses Jacob and says: “May El Shaddai bless you and make you fruitful, and multiply you, that you may be a congregation of peoples.” (Genesis 28:3) Finally, Jacob invokes the Name Shaddai when he blesses his own children: “…And by Shaddai you will be blessed, with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that couches beneath, blessings of the breasts [shaddaim], and of the womb.” (Genesis 49:25)
In all of these cases, we see that El Shaddai is associated with blessings of fertility and reproduction. The last verse in particular makes this explicit, connecting Shaddai with shaddaim, “breasts”. In fact, later in the Torah (Deuteronomy 32:13), God states that He “suckles” us with sweet honey, and the Name used is once again Shaddai (though it should be mentioned that it is typically read as saddai, “My field”). In short, El Shaddai is a Name of fertility and reproduction, and symbolic of the Jewish people—children of God—“suckling” and sustaining ourselves from God’s blessings. The association with milk is quite clear.
Better yet, the Torah itself is compared to nourishing milk (Song of Songs 4:11). And, fittingly, the gematria of “milk”, halav (חלב) is 40, alluding to the 40 days and nights that Moses ascended Mt. Sinai to bring down the Torah. Forty is the value of the letter mem, which is unique in that it has an “open” (מ) and “closed” (ם) form. The open mem is incomplete, searching for meaning and for its purpose, while the closed mem is complete, a full circle (or square). The open mem’s value is only 40, while the closed mem is 600. The difference between them is 560, the value of parpar (פרפר), “butterfly”, the ultimate symbol of transformation and metamorphosis. All of this alludes to a person’s own growth, transformation, and completion through Torah.
This week we start a new book of the Torah, Shemot, known in English as ‘Exodus’. This volume is primarily concerned with the period of Israelite slavery in Egypt, and the subsequent salvation following the ten plagues and the Splitting of the Sea, climaxing with the revelation at Mt. Sinai, and the start of the transmission of the bulk of the Torah’s laws.
Coincidentally, not long ago was released Ridley Scott’s new film, Exodus: Gods and Kings, and I finally had a chance to see it this week. Though it appeared to show a little bit of promise at the start, the movie soon unravelled into a bizarre re-invention of the Biblical story. Of course, there is nothing wrong with some artistic liberties when adapting an ancient text for a modern film, nor is it too much of a problem to fill in some of the gaps in the Torah’s narrative. However, Exodus: Gods and Kings presented a completely twisted version that did not even slightly stick to the basic story of the Torah. It would take an entire tome to cover all the mistakes in the film, but perhaps we can offer just a few of the most blatant ones.
From the very beginning, we see that Moses seems to be completely unaware that he is not Egyptian. That’s quite odd: Semites and Egyptians had a totally different appearance. Take a look at this depiction of Semitic tribes, as discovered in the 12th dynasty tomb of Egyptian Khnumhotep II, official of the pharaoh Senusret II:
The Semites have a different skin tone, different hair styles, clothes, and so on. The filmmakers clearly knew this, as they show Moses bearded and sporting a nice hairdo, while all the other Egyptian royals are clean-shaven and bald. His eyes look different, and he wears clothes of a completely different style than all the others. How come? Didn’t he ever question why he doesn’t look anything like his “royal brethren”?
More importantly, the Torah clearly says that Moses was initially raised by his true birth mother, Yocheved (Exodus 2:7-9). Only after he was fully weaned did Yocheved present Moses to his new step-mother, the Pharaoh’s daughter (v. 10). It is totally inconceivable that Moses did not know he was a Hebrew! The Torah states that when Moses grew up, he “went out to his brothers and looked at their burdens” (2:11). He knew full-well that he was going out to his people.
At this point, when he saw an Egyptian taskmaster violently beating a Jew, he stepped in to save the victim, killing the Egyptian in the process. In the movie, this heroic act is replaced with an enraged Moses killing an Egyptian guard who was doing nothing terrible at all. The kind, compassionate Moses, described by the Torah as the humblest man that ever lived, is turned into a violent brute who kills indiscriminately. No wonder that Christian Bale, the actor who plays Moses, said of his character that he was “likely schizophrenic and was one of the most barbaric individuals that I ever read about in my life.” Makes sense if all he ever read about Moses was in the script for the film.
If Christian Bale did indeed read about Moses, perhaps he missed the whole part where Moses selflessly led his people for forty years in the wilderness. Where he literally sat from morning to evening to counsel the people and help them (Exodus 18:13). Or when he refused to abandon his people, even when God offered to make an entirely new nation out of Moses (Exodus 32:10). The many occasions where he convinced God to avert His just decrees and forgive the nation for their sins. The time where his sister Miriam transgressed severely against Moses, yet he did not hold even the tiniest of grudges or ill-will, and immediately prayed to God to heal Miriam and have mercy on her (Numbers 12:13). Or the simple fact that Moses led the revolution that brought monotheism (together with a higher sense of morality, starting with a set of Ten Commandments) to over two-thirds of the world’s population.
Worse than its depiction of Moses, though, was the film’s depiction of God: an irrational, pointlessly vengeful, literally childish figure. The film made it seem like the Ten Plagues were nothing more than God’s desire to kill as many people as possible. The reality, of course, was that the Ten Plagues were meant to be a measure-for-measure retribution for what the Egyptians had done; nothing more than cosmic karma. For example, just as the whole story begins with Pharaoh ordering the male-born to be drowned in the Nile, it ends with Pharaoh’s own male soldiers drowning in the Red Sea, measure for measure. Nor was God happy about any of this. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 39b) beautifully says that at the Splitting of the Sea, when the Egyptians drowned, the angels began to sing a joyous song, mimicking the Jews that were singing as well – but God immediately stopped them. He rebuked the angels, saying sadly: “My creations are drowning, and you are singing?”
When one studies the texts and commentaries, it becomes clear that each of the Plagues was specifically tailored towards the sins of the Egyptians, and was designed to bring the rightful justice that was due. Nowhere is this fact even hinted to in the movie. Most telling was after the plague of the firstborn, when Pharaoh confronts Moses demanding an answer as to why they suffered such a tragedy. The latter gives no logical reply, saying only that no Hebrews died. Perhaps the scriptwriter should have had something along the lines of: “Hey Pharaoh, did you forget all the countless babies that you slaughtered? Or the many warnings you were given that this was coming, and to stop your evil ways?” The scene almost makes Pharaoh seem like the victim, and Moses the villain. It appears that the main aim of the movie was to cast Moses (and God) in a bad light. It really seems like the filmmakers went out of their way to do this.
Moses is shown carelessly abandoning his family when he goes back to Egypt to save his people. His wife and son are angry, emotionally-scarred, losing their faith – and Moses does nothing about it. What was the point of making this shift from the Torah’s original version, which clearly states “Moses took his wife and sons, mounted them upon the donkey, and returned to the land of Egypt…” (Exodus 4:20)? He never abandoned his family, but took everyone with him!
It therefore appears quite evident that the purpose of Exodus: Gods and Kings was to turn one of the most beautiful and enduring stories into an ugly, twisted, and corrupt tale. The sheer number of mistakes is both inexcusable and inexplicable. One who wishes to experience a far truer (and more entertaining) version need only to open and read this week’s Torah portion.